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Covenants in the Bible

A covenant is a contract, a treaty, a ritual agreement or alliance between two parties. It formally binds the two parties together in a relationship, on the basis of mutual personal commitment, with consequences for keeping or breaking the covenant. One covenant in scripture is the Abrahamic Covenant where God makes a covenant or promise with Abram’s seed, his descendants, and committing himself never to break it. In the ancient world, sacrifices often accompanied symbolic gestures as if to say, “May God make me like this animal if I do not fulfill the demands of the covenant.” This was a serious oath. Since only God made the covenant promise, He was invoking the curse on Himself if He failed to fulfill the promise.

In the ancient near east, Kings sometimes granted land or other gifts to loyal subjects. God gave land to Abram, his subject, as a possession and an inheritance. However Abram would not take immediate possession, but it was be possessed by his descendants. This would certainly occur because God had promised that it would occur, and He has the power and integrity to do what He promises. A clear theme of the Bible is that God’s promises never fail.

A blood covenant in those days involved the practice of cutting an animal in two halves in the covenant ceremony. A blood covenant could not be mistaken as a sacrifice, because in a sacrifice the pieces would have been placed on an altar and roasted or burned. Abram laid each half opposite the other forming a passageway between the pieces or halves. No specific directions were given; however, it can be assumed that Abram was familiar with covenant ceremonies from that era and knew the procedure. The ceremony was for the covenant participants to walk between the carcass halves as a sign of the agreement they had made. Perhaps like a signing ceremony might be today.

The penalty for breaking the covenant was death. Cutting the animals symbolized this oath, indicating that the covenant maker pledged his own life on his word. We can observe such a ceremony in Jeremiah 34:18-19 which describes an event that took place during Nebuchadnezzar’s siege of Jerusalem (589-587 B.C.). In that event, a covenant was made by cutting a calf “in two” and the covenant participants “passing between its parts.” Those who walk between the two portions of the animal invoke the same fate (death like the animals) on themselves if they are unfaithful to their covenant partners. However, they were also united by the bond of blood, a permanent relationship. In the Jeremiah passage, God chastises the leaders of Judah for not keeping their word with Babylon, and makes it clear He plans to turn them over to Babylon to teach them a lesson for going back on their word.

It is noteworthy in Genesis 15:17 that only God passed between the pieces, signifying he was binding himself to give the promised land to Abram’s descendants without putting Abram under any obligation. In this case, God’s promise is unilateral. Sometimes God’s promises are unconditional, and only need to be received. And sometimes God’s promises depend upon our obedience in order to gain the promised benefit. It is important to discern which is which. We can cause ourselves major problems trying to earn something God gives, or believing we are entitled to something God requires us to seek.

While Abram was in a deep sleep, God (in the manifestation of a smoking oven and a flaming torch) passed between the pieces of the blood sacrifice. Most agree that the smoking oven and burning torch represent God. This resembles the pillar of cloud and pillar of fire indicating the presence of God in the wilderness as shown in Exodus 13:21-22. God was establishing the covenant without any oath, agreement or commitment on the part of Abram. This was very unusual, Abram was the recipient, but not an active participant. Abram was simply a spectator of this wonderful exhibition of God’s free grace. The covenant did not depend on Abram’s promise. This was a covenant of God’s promise alone and its fulfillment depended on God alone. God was assuming sole responsibility in the covenant.

Interestingly, the word “oven” (Hebrew Tannur) used here was a firepot used for baking bread and roasting grain for sacrifice (Leviticus 26:26, 2:14, 7:9). The use of the English word “oven” could create the wrong mental image for the modern mind. The term was used for a large earthenware jar. The dough placed inside the jar stuck to the sides and was then baked by putting charcoal inside the jar or putting the jar near the fire. Fire is often used as a metaphor for God’s judgment, and the Bible tells us that God Himself is a “consuming fire” (Deut 4:24; 9:3; Hebrews 12:29). A furnace produces heat that consumes what is in it. It is also used as a symbol of God’s avenging presence (Exodus 24:17; Deut 9:3; Isaiah 31:9). The Bible tells us God’s enemies will be consumed by fire as if they were in an oven (Psalm 21:9-10). Fire represented God’s cleansing and unapproachable holiness (Isaiah 6:3-7; 1 Corinthians 3:10-14). Many times smoke and fire have been used to represent God’s presence. One example is in the exodus from Egypt and at Mount Sinai (Exodus 13:21-22, 19:18, 20:18; Hebrews 12:18).

God’s clear message to Abram was that despite prospects of death and suffering (enslavement in Egypt), he and his descendants would eventually receive the promises, for God had sworn an oath (Hebrews 6:13-14). Nothing can separate God’s people from His love or the fulfillment of His plans (Romans 8:18-39; 2 Peter 1:3-4). Even though the actual possession of the land by Abram’s descendants was yet hundreds of years in the future, God speaks of this event in the past tense, saying I have given, again emphasizing the certainty that God’s promises will be fulfilled. The four hundred plus years of waiting would be like the time between closing on the purchase of a house and moving in and taking possession. The ownership is certain, but possession is pending.

God defines the extent of the promised land from the river of Egypt as far as the great river, the river Euphrates. The promised land was about 300,000 square miles. The “river of Egypt” could be the Nile. However, others believe this refers to the “Wadi El-Arish” (brook of Egypt), which is a familiar landmark for Canaan’s southwestern border near the Sinai desert (Joshua 15:4; Ezekiel 48:28; Numbers 34:5). The river Euphrates marks the northeastern boundary of Canaan. It is interesting to note that the actual border of the nation has not yet extended to the full length of what God promised. Even though after four hundred plus years Abram’s descendants took partial possession, the complete fulfillment of this promise still lies in the future.

Abram fell on his face in awe, humbling himself in front of God in submission. Falling on one’s face was a way of showing respect to one’s superior, or suzerain, and of assuming the role of a servant or vassal.

God now further expands His covenant commitment to Abram (Genesis 15:8-21). God had already promised that Abram would have a large number of descendants (Genesis 15:5). God now adds You will be the father of a multitude of nations.God grants an additional reward for faithful service. Abram will be the father of a multitude of nations. God had already promised that Abram would have a large number of descendants. God grants this reward after making a mutual agreement with Abram that he will be made great if he walks in righteousness. Now He promises that he will be the father of a number of nations.

In the present time, this promise has already been fulfilled in two ways. First, the people physically descended from Abraham constitute many nations (Genesis 25-26). However, Abraham is also a spiritual father to all who believe (Romans 4:9-11). This would include people from every nation (Rev 7:9). God has, indeed, fulfilled this promise granted to Abram to be the father of many nations. God also rewarded Abram pursuant to the conditional promise to multiply Abram exceedingly if Abram walked before God blameless because, as we will see, Abram fulfilled his part of the agreement.

God tells Abram: I will establish My covenant between Me and you and your descendants. This expands this grant of rewards as well as the conditional covenant between Me and you to include Abraham’s descendants. Roughly 500 years later, when Abraham’s descendants are about to enter the Promised Land, God clearly communicates specifics to Israel on the conditional nature of blessing/reward in the Promised Land. For example, Deuteronomy 30:15-20 uses the metaphor of choosing between two roads. The road of faithfulness leads to a consequence of experiencing life and the road of unfaithfulness death. Being blessed in the land is conditional upon obedience. However, the Israelites will always be the rightful possessors of the land, because it was granted to Abram without further condition.

This is one of three times in this chapter that the covenant is referred to as an everlasting covenant (verses 7, 13, 19). God’s commitment to the people of Israel is permanent: to be God to you and to your descendants. To be your God is the heart of the covenant and is repeated over and over again in the Bible (Jeremiah 24:7, 31:33; Ezekiel 34:30-31; Hosea 2:23; Zechariah 8:8; Romans 11:25-29).

God grants the land as an everlasting possession. Israel’s right to possess the land is never spoken of as being conditional. Paul reinforces the reality that God’s promises are everlasting in Romans 11:29 when he says that God’s gifts and calling are “irrevocable”. He would be their God. The nation of Israel might be exiled from the land for a while, yet they will return to it, for it is theirs.

God later calls upon Abraham to observe his covenant obligation (Exodus 23:15; Deuteronomy 28:9). This is unlike the previous provision of the covenant, where God passed through the animal halves by Himself, because He was making unilateral promises (Gen 15:10-18). In this case, this is a mutual agreement, and Abram and his descendants have a continuing obligation in order to receive the reward (or blessings). Abram’s covenant obligation is specified in verse 10: Now as for you, you shall keep My covenant. God institutes a physical sign of the covenant, namely circumcision. This indicated one’s total commitment to God and His covenant. The obligation of the covenant involved the practice of keeping the covenant’s sign. This was, in a way, Abram’s “signature” on the contract with God, that he would keep his part of the “deal” by being an obedient vassal, or servant, to his superior or suzerain.

The covenant was God’s, and it involved “every male.” Specifically, Abram, every male among you, and your descendants after you were to be circumcised. The institution of circumcision was given as a seal of the covenant. The fact that it applied to all of Abram’s descendants emphasized that this covenant would pass down to all of Abram’s seed. Circumcision signified a commitment to obey God, that God alone would be worshipped; a commitment to trust and serve God.

You shall be circumcised in the flesh of your foreskin, circumcision is the removal of the male foreskin. The word circumcision means “to cut around.”God chose circumcision as the sign of the covenant between Me and you. It showed physically and tangibly that obedience was necessary to receive additional blessing. However, it did not affect the unconditional promises God had already made. Paul will make a major point of this in his arguments in the book of Romans, noting that Abraham was declared righteous in the sight of God (Gen 15:6) long before he was circumcised (Romans 4:1-13). It is also worth noting that all these grants and promises, both conditional as well as unconditional, are made many years before God will grant the Law. Paul also makes this point, that God gave the Law “four hundred and thirty years later” (Gal 3:17) because of “transgressions” (Gal 3:19). Apparently Abraham’s descendants needed some help discerning what it meant to be blameless in order to receive God’s added blessings.

Circumcision identified Abraham and his descendants as God’s own people and reminded them to live in faithfulness to the covenant. The act of circumcision was a confirmation symbol of separation from the world, of holiness, and loyalty to the covenant; it was an act of faith. It is an outer metaphor of the “circumcision of the heart,” which means inwardly that one is committed to God, and set apart to God rather than being stubbornly resistant (Leviticus 26:41; Deuteronomy 30:6; Romans 2:28-29, 4:11; Ephesians 2:11).

When Jesus established the New Covenant, he fulfilled the requirements of the Old Covenant. Therefore, it is not necessary for any believers to be physically circumcised. The Jerusalem Council and the subsequent writings of Paul made this point explicit for New Testament Gentile believers (Acts 15:1-29; Romans 2:25-29; Galatians 2:1-10, 6:15; Colossians 2:11-12). All believers are placed into God’s family through simply believing God’s promise in Jesus, without further condition, including any physical ceremony.

Jewish believers continued to practice circumcision as a cultural expression. Paul had Timothy circumcised (Acts 16:3). Paul also made it clear that he still followed Jewish customs. In Rome, Paul proclaimed to “the leading men of the Jews” that “Brethren, though I had done nothing against our people or the customs of our fathers, yet I was delivered as a prisoner from Jerusalem into the hands of the Romans” (Acts 28:17). He further asserted that he was “forced to appeal to Caesar, not that I had any accusation against my nation” (Acts 28:19). He told the Jewish leaders in Rome that “I am wearing this chain for the sake of the hope of Israel” (Acts 28:20). Paul’s assertion that he had “done nothing against our people or the customs of our fathers” makes it clear that Paul himself followed Jewish custom.

Paul further underscored this distinction in Acts 21. When Paul came to Jerusalem, he met with the head elder of the Jerusalem church, James, along with the other elders. They expressed to him a concern about misinformation about Paul that had been spread throughout Jerusalem. The “many thousands … among the Jews” who had “believed” in Jesus “had been told about” Paul, that he was “teaching all the Jews who are among the Gentiles to forsake Moses, telling them not to circumcise their children nor to walk according to the customs.” They suggest that Paul participate in a vow to demonstrate that he is doing no such thing, that he is also “zealous for the law,” and Paul complies.

There is no tension here, since religious custom is fine so long as it is not a substitute for faith. The argument Paul makes to the Gentiles is that by adopting a new custom as though it is a necessity, they negate the grace of God. In the letter to the Hebrews, the writer (likely Paul) makes it clear that although it is fine to follow religious customs, relying on them for righteousness is disobedience to God. The key to righteousness is obedience to Jesus from the heart.

Paul insists that the key understanding of circumcision is to have our hearts set apart in obedience to God (Romans 2:29). As with this message in Genesis, New Testament believers are offered additional blessings if we are obedient and walk in faithfulness to God, in the newness of life. When we walk in obedience, we are walking with circumcised hearts.

The sign of God’s covenant was not directed just to sons and family, but to whole households, even a servant who is born…or who is bought…shall surely be circumcised. The firstborn son has the same obligation in the covenant as the lowest servant. Thus shall My covenant be in your fleshas a physical sign of an everlasting covenant. God’s promised blessing extended to everyone. The fact that it extended to slaves who might have come from other lands is an early fulfillment of God’s promise to Abraham that all the families of the earth would be blessed in him (Gen 12:3).

In the New Covenant, physical circumcision ceased as a required practice among Gentile Believers. This was decided in the Jerusalem Council of Acts 15. However, the believing Pharisees, or some people like them, argued at that council that Gentiles needed to be circumcised. Apparently these Pharisees did not heed the Council’s decision. The letters of Paul to the Romans and to the Galatians directly addressed competing Jewish “authorities” who were teaching those believers that they needed to be circumcised and obey the Jewish law. Paul addresses this debate in many of his letters. Another example occurs in Philippians chapter 3. The apostle Paul states that the true circumcision are those who place their trust in God and worship in Spirit, while the false circumcision are those who place their trust in their physical circumcision (and related actions.)

Circumcision was not optional for Abraham and his descendants. If a father failed to fulfill his duty on the eighth day after his son’s birth, the responsibility fell upon the individual himself to be circumcised when he reached maturity or that person shall be cut off. He that is not himself “cut” (circumcised) will be “cut off.” The text here does not make it clear how an uncircumcised male was to be cut off from his people. Likely it means they would physically be cut off from their people—ostracized. What is clear is that everyone who deliberately excludes himself cannot be a beneficiary of the covenant blessings and thereby dooms himself.

Failure to be circumcised means that the violator had broken God’s covenant (Exodus 4:24-26; Galatians 5:2-4). By not becoming circumcised the person was rejecting God Himself. Circumcision distinguished those who believed in God’s promises to Abraham from those who did not.

It is noteworthy that the book of Deuteronomy was presented in the form of a suzerain-vassal treaty where the suzerain such as a king or a ruler sets his own expectations of the covenant to the vassal who is the subject. Thus, throughout the book of Deuteronomy, it is evident the Suzerain/Ruler God chose Israel to be His own vassal and provided them with instructions concerning how to behave in order to please Him. These instructions were intended to shape the behavior and attitudes of Israel as vassals in a way that reflected their Suzerain/Ruler God.

God had made unconditional promises to Israel, through Abraham, making the Israelites His people, and granting them title to the land. Deuteronomy reminded the people of God’s faithfulness, but also of their responsibility. God’s gift of accepting Israel as His people is irrevocable (Rom. 11:29). But God’s blessing and reward depended upon the people’s obedience.

The covenant name of God, usually rendered the LORD in Bible translations, is Yahweh. This is the name that God gave to Moses at the burning bush event at Mount Horeb (Exodus 3). When Moses returned to Egypt to tell the Israelites what he had seen, he wanted his listeners to know that what he was about to say did not come from him, but from the Suzerain, or Ruler (God) who has full authority over His vassals (the Israelites).The great and powerful Suzerain Yahweh is to be obeyed. But this Suzerain also has made a covenant that if Israel will live in obedience, they will be blessed, and that they may live long on the land which the LORD their God is giving them for all time.” This is the “deal” in the covenant. If the Israelites keep the law, they will be blessed and live in the land. If they do not, they will be expelled from the land and be chastised. Keeping the LORD’s ordinances will guarantee Israel’s success because they and their children would live long in the Promised Land and would enjoy all its benefits.

The practical application of this was to cause the people to be externally focused, serving one another, honoring one another’s persons and possessions under the rule of law as given by God. Exclusive loyalty to God would cause Israel to thrive with mutual service and love toward one another. Additionally, many of God’s laws would create other community benefits. For example, avoiding foods prone to carry diseases. The sanitation laws that required disposing of human waste in a sanitary manner (Deut 23:12-14). And avoiding contact with people that had communicable diseases (Lev 13:45-46).

Another reason for Israel to be loyal to the LORD was because the LORD your God in the midst of you is a jealous God. The adjective “jealous” does not mean that God is envious of what belongs to others. This is impossible since God is the ultimate owner of everything (Psalm 50:12). Rather, it means that God demands loyalty from those who are in covenant relationship with Him. Like a husband or wife views their relationship with their spouse. In fact, God uses marriage to illustrate His relationship with His people throughout scripture (Ezekiel 16, Ephesians 5:28-32). Since God as the ruler or suzerain wants to preserve and enforce His covenant relationship with His people, His anger can be fatal. As Moses warned Israel, “The anger of the LORD your God will be kindled against you, and He will wipe you off the face of the earth.” This statement reminds us of Moses’s previous declaration in 4:24 that the LORD is a “consuming fire.” The idea is that, just like fire can potentially destroy everything in its path, God also can destroy anyone.

God’s relationship with New Testament believers mirrors His relationship with Abraham and his descendants. New Testament believers are said to be spiritually “grafted in” to Israel (Romans 11:17). New Testament believers are granted a gift of being righteous in the sight of God simply by believing (Genesis 15:6; Romans 4:1-4). There is no further condition required. People become both children and servants of God simply by believing (John 3:14-16).

God still rewards His children who are obedient, and disciplines those who are disobedient (Galatians 6:6-10; Hebrews 12:29). This sometimes includes physical death (1 Cor 11:27-32; Acts 5:1-10). And, similar to the Mosaic covenant, much of the wrath of God is a natural consequence of poor choices, as in Romans 1:18,24,26,28 where the wrath of God is poured out on unrighteousness by God giving us over to our own fleshly lusts, to become its slaves (we might say “addicts”). In such instances, the wrath of God comes from giving us over to what we seek. In many cases God’s chastisement of Israel came in the form of giving them over to what they sought.